Speculation surrounds missing Chinese vice president


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BEIJING -- Xi Jinping is expected to become the next leader of China, making him one of the most powerful men on the planet. But right now, no one outside Beijing's inner circles of power is quite sure where he can be found.

Owing to the murky nature of Chinese officialdom, it's not clear whether the fact that Mr. Xi hasn't been seen for more than a week points to scandal or, more probably, nothing at all. There has been no obvious sign of disruption in the government, though the recent lack of visibility by Mr. Xi in the run-up to his taking the reins of the world's second-largest economy has raised eyebrows.

The question of his whereabouts first arose Wednesday, when his scheduled meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was canceled. The same thing happened that day for a meeting with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

There was immediate speculation that the Chinese government had snubbed Ms. Clinton in a fit of diplomatic pique about what it sees as overly aggressive U.S. involvement in Beijing's territorial disputes with neighbors in the South China Sea. That narrative, however, didn't quite fit: Vice Premier Li Keqiang substituted for Mr. Xi, and Ms. Clinton's visit also included meetings with the Chinese president and premier.

Asked about Mr. Xi during a joint news conference with Ms. Clinton, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded Wednesday: "The current schedule of the secretary's visit has been agreed by the two sides. I hope people will not add unnecessary speculation."

There were reports that Mr. Xi, 59, had hurt his back while playing soccer. Or perhaps while swimming.

But then, an overseas website that's known for carrying both verifiable information and egregiously inaccurate rumors about Chinese leadership said it had received information that Mr. Xi was hurt in an attempted assassination attempt disguised as a car accident, and that a second powerful official, Politburo Standing Committee member He Guoqiang, was injured in a similar incident.

The U.S.-based website, Boxun.com, quickly took down the report and posted a new item Sunday, saying it had reliable reports that Mr. Xi's health issue wasn't serious. Mr. Xi, it turns out, has been busy preparing for an upcoming Chinese Communist Party congress that will usher in a once-in-a-decade change of national leadership, Boxun said.

It's not known when, exactly, Mr. Xi last surfaced. A search of the website of the Xinhua state news wire resulted in an item from Sept. 1.

The case of Mr. Xi's temporary disappearance comes during a shockingly turbulent political year for China.

A Hong Kong newspaper reported last week that a principal aide to President Hu Jintao was demoted because of attempts to suppress news that his son was killed in a March car crash while driving a Ferrari in which he was accompanied by two women, one of whom was reportedly naked and the other in a state of semi-undress.

That followed a scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, a man once thought to be a serious contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, the Chinese center of power, who instead was purged this year as a Politburo member and from his job as party boss in the city of Chongqing. Mr. Bo hasn't been charged with a crime, but his wife was sentenced to death, with a two-year reprieve, on charges of killing a British businessman.

Mr. Bo's former chief of police, who set off Mr. Bo's downfall by fleeing to a U.S. consulate and reportedly accusing Mr. Bo's wife of killing the businessman, soon will face charges involving defection, abuse of power and taking bribes.

Amid the speculation and confusion about Mr. Xi's whereabouts, the editor of the South China Morning Post, the newspaper that ran the story about Mr. Hu's aide, wrote in a column Monday that "the weak explanation of an 'itinerary adjustment' is unlikely to cut it" in stopping speculation about Mr. Xi.

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